Tuesday, December 09, 2008

From the New and Improved "Every Man His Own Eckermann" (forthcoming, summer 2009)

DR: I’ve never understood this constant, carping harping on his [Glenn Gould’s] idiosyncrasies, either why they ever attracted any attention during his life or why they've become, as they say, the stuff of legend since his death. I mean, inasmuch as most people I’ve known have had scads of idiosyncrasies—hang-ups, fixations, phobias, or what have you—that were at least as distracting as any of Gould’s. But distracting from exactly what? In Gould’s case, the answer is obvious: wit, genius, talent, all-around bonhomie, and the like; but, in the case of these others, I’m afraid I’m drawing a bit of a blank.

dr: Would vacuity, pettiness, commonplaceness, all-around shittiness, and the like by any chance fill it?

DR: To capacity, old fruit, to capacity. Thanks a bundle.

dr: That's hardly a surprising view of the matter, coming as it does from an unregenerate luddite...
DR: ...Whoah, whoah, whoah, hold on there just a minute, mister/partner/buster. Exactly who are you calling a luddite?
dr [in a godawful attempt at a Brooklyn accent more redolent of Glenn Gould's Theodore Slutz than of Robert deNiro's Travis Bickell]: Well, there's nobody else here, so?
DR: All right, cut it out. Let's get one thing ferpectly clear: I'm no luddite.
dr: All, right, now you cut it out (and I am indeed talking to you) a man who owns neither a c******* nor a l*****, who enjoys the usufruct of neither c**** t********* nor h***-s**** i******* a*****...
DR: ...and yet who does, for all that, both own a D** p***** and enjoy the usufruct of l**-s**** i******* a*****. Look, the reason I resent the imputation of ludditehood with a well-nigh Dukakisian degree of vehemence, is that I honestly can't be arsed to shiv a git about what is mistermed "technological progress" one way or the other. TBT, the luddite is every bit as much a parvenu, downmarket, low-rent, bottom-feeding sort of invertebrate as his alleged arch-enemy, the so-called technophile (who is, in fact, at best, a sort of gourmandizer of expensive techno-flavored lolipops). He's worthless because he assumes that any of this shit--I mean, the shit that's been flung at all of us from infancy onwards under the auspices of the dernier cri techologique--somehow actually matters; that in, say, writing a letter by hand and sending it by so-called s**** m**** you're actually fighting the good fight against the forces of so-called dehumanization. I mean because, in the first place, hardly anybody bothered to write to anybody else in the old days, when they had no other choice if they wanted to keep in touch with people far away. They didn't bother because they weren't interested in what their friends or relatives five states or two continents away were up to, because they were too preoccupied with the immediate soap-operatic goings-on of their own environs to cope with the secondhand soap-operatic goings-on in Poughkeepsie or Alice Springs; nor, conversely, did they have either the stamina or the sense of a sympathetic audience on the other end that would have impelled them to rehash these events in cogent prose for the benefit of their Poughkeepsiean or Alice Springian correspondent, even at the ludicrously cheap rate of one or two or (at most) five cents per page.
dr: And in the second place?
DR: And in the second place, no mere augmentation in the speed of the transmission of information will ever, on its own, be capable of counteracting the universal degeneration of the human organism, which--despite all demographic hooplah to the contrary--continues apace with all the remorseless irreversibility it exhibited in the days of our most benighted ancestors. To bring it all back home: I turned 36 this year. I would gladly swap the privilege of instantaneous electronic correspondence with my friends in Europe at 36 for the privilege of being 18 in a world bereft of electrically-powered instruments of any sort. Conversely, for all of my irritation at the c*******-powered chitchat that disturbs my commute on the Number 3 bus (and my 10-year-old fond memories of a Number 3 commute mercifully devoid of such chitchat), I would gladly swap my present situation for that 2026's 18-year-old Number 3 commuter, mercilessly subjected every ten minutes to 30-second bursts of telepathically-instilled cephalomercials for the latest version of the Big Mac or the Prius.

DR [on the first movement of Schubert’s Great C Major symphony]: It seems to portray the convergence of several mutually remote and allied armies, from diverse points of the compass, upon a destined battleground. The fact that the battle itself is never fought, nor the enemy ever depicted—that, indeed, the climactic moments are vouchsafed to a couple of spirited dry charges of the cavalry en route along the high road--accounts for the movement's prevailing participation in the aesthetic domain of the cute (and, indeed, ultimately for the participation of the work as a whole in this domain, in defiance of its nickname).


DR: Irritating, don't you find it, that we grew up with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, like our parents and grandparents before us, and like our children and grandchildren after us--

dr: --So you do plan to sire children after all?--

DR: --all, right, like somebody's children and grandchildren; whereas the ancients, you see, always had their own generationally-tailored childhood fictions and fictional characters that they could grow out of or jettison or what have you. Take Rollo, for example.

dr: How can I take him as such? I've never heard of him.

DR: You see, that's just my point. I'd never heard of him until I started listening to Charles Ives, or, rather, I guess, reading the liner notes to recordings of Charles Ives's compositions. He--Rollo--was apparently some kind of late-Victorian Pollyanna or Goody Two-Shoes.
DR: Olesha talks about the “splendid fate” he enjoyed in having been born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, such that (he said) his youth coincided--or was coinciding--with the youth of the century. I think there’s some sort of correspondingly singular fate—I don’t know how splendid it is, but it’s certainly singular—in having been born towards the close of a century, such that the end of one’s youth coincides--or did coincide--with the end of that century. Don’t you think so?

dr: Well, I guess I would think so if the end of youth were such a fixed and determinable moment as the beginning of life.

DR: Ah, but you see, it is.

dr: Sez who? Isn’t it always changing? Isn’t 40 the new 20? And by 2010 won’t 50 be the new 15? [DR thrashes him soundly.] OK, master, I went too far. If you’ll allow me to reiterate: Sez who?

DR: Sez no less an august and Augustan authority than Dr. Johnson.


DR: Johnson defined youth as lasting from the age of 14 to the age of 28

dr: [Something about the tendentiousness of certain of Johnson's definitions: e.g.,"Whig: a faction".]

DR: [Something about this's (sic) not being one of those definitions.] Anyway, the point is—well, this isn’t really the point, because I really do think he was on to something with this 14-to-28 span of his (or whoever else’s –anything in multiples of seven has the ring of the secular and sacred super-ancientness [Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man])—that I was aware of the definition during my passage through the better part of the interval alluded to in it, such that from about the age of 18 or so I was recurrently counting down, as it were, to the moment of my youth’s expiration. at any rate I guess I must have encountered this definition at the age of 19 at the latest, because I remember being 19 and thinking to myself—in the aisles of Kash ‘n’ Karry Store No. 878, during one of my bagboy shifts (and, further, I suppose, during a price check run [for what other excuse would a bagger have to be in the aisles?])—with no small amount of smugness, “Jeepers! I’m only 19. I’ve still got nine-fourtheenths of my youth to look forward to.”
dr: So what’s this all adding up to, apart from a spirited spell of numerologically-ill inspired navel-gazing?

DR: What it’s all adding up to is the inference that to have been born in April of 1972—or, rather, let’s say, between October of 1971 and September of 1972—was a kind of unparalleled windfall or godsend (and at the same a kind of shot in the foot and curse)—at least to a simultaneously historically and philosophically-minded soul such as I.

dr: Such as I, such as I, such as I, such as I…zzz... How about the rest of us?

DR: I’ll get around to you lot eventually. Or, perchance, never. I mean, seriously, I really do wonder whether anyone who wasn’t born in late ’71 or early ’72 will ever know exactly where I’m coming from.

dr: OK, well, then, let’s pretend I’m exactly…say…halfway between your parents’ age.

DR: You mean that you were born in November of 1948?

dr: Right. In other words, under the so-called shadow of the so-called Cold War, just like you, 23-and-a-half years later. What’s the difference?

DR: The difference, I think consists in this: that even as children you must have been dimly aware of a time (namely, that of the Second World War), when Russia had not been our enemy; whereas during my childhood, the enmity of Russia was a fact of quasi-geological antiquity. For us of the natal class of ’72 there were only two conceivable alternatives: either this horrible standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would go on forever, or the world would be annihilated.

dr: And just as starkly, presumably, must these alternatives have presented themselves to the natal classes of ’67 and ’77.

DR: Yes, with the difference that when these alternatives were finally annulled, made mincemeat of, or what have you, in late ’89, the natal class of ’67 were already out on their own in the so-called real world; and the natal class of ’77 were not yet of shaving or menstruating age. Whereas for us, who were graduating from high school in that year—well, I don’t know, I guess to appreciate this—to be capable of tearing up over it, even vicariously—you have to be an American—

dr: --As I in fact am, lest you forget.
DR: Why, of course you are, old fruit, and so you know that all Americans—or, at least all Americans born, let’s say, since the Great Depression—believe that the senior year of high school marks—or ought to mark—the apogee of one’s youth; hence, in a certain respect, of one’s life. Polemical exceptions, from Corman to Apatow, have only reinforced this fundamental article of our creed, and I’ve never been a fan of any of these exceptions; or, more precisely, I’ve always doubted the sincerity—nay the possibility--of their apostasy. But that’s neither here nor there: I don’t want to go off on my anti-Freaks and Geeks tear right now. Nor, though, do I want to be understood as tying in my remarks on the Spirit of ’89 into any sort of theodicy of senior-your worship, as attributing metaphysical pre-eminence to the sorts of freedoms one tends to taste for the first time then; nor, sir: you won’t catch me quipping the likes of “What could be more fundamentally antitotalitarian than having 400 horse-powers [sic?] and two tons [sic?] of Scranton-smelted steel and Clermont Ferrand-vulcanized rubber at your beck and call?”; or “Surely, those 22,000 [sic?] East Berliners [the people, not the jelly doughnuts] and I must have felt pretty much the same mixture of dread and wonder on that cold/rainy/humid/muggy late-November night, they as they made their first tentative pickaxe-taps at the Wall separating them from everlasting freedom, I as I gingerly-ly fumbled with my girlfriend’s bra clasps en route to second base.” All I’m going to say is that in that year (’89-stroke-senior) there was no escaping a sense of the intertwinedness of one’s inescapable conviction that everything was going to be supernally fine and dandy in one’s own life from then on out, and the equally inescapable conviction that everything on the world scene was going to be supernally fine and dandy from then on out.. To put it crassly but justly, the each of the phenomena was the other one’s spiritual MSG.

dr: Correlatively, I suppose, you’re bound to argue that those who graduated two years later, in the year of the LA riots; or five years later, during the OJ Simpson trial must have had senior years marked—or, rather, blighted—by a comparatively progressive spiritual MSG policy?

DR: To the extent of their attentiveness to the news of the day, yes, I am so bound and do so argue. Certainly, for my part-stroke-on my end, the comparative blandness of these events dovetails very nicely with the workmanlike, unwatershed-marking character of the corresponding years in my lifeworld: second year of college, first year of graduate school, respectively. They were events of a genre in keeping with the completely rarified aesthetic character the world scene had assumed for me since the fall of the Wall, and that my Lebensweg had assumed since high school.

dr: So, by this point you were simply drifting through the world and your own life in a semi-proverbial mellow haze, in an attitude of genial apathy characteristic of that microepochally-defining character known as the…what was it?...the Idler, or Loafer, or Off-slougher…?

DR: …Slacker, I believe. But no, I wouldn’t say that. That’s what’s misleading about the word aesthetic: in rightly suggesting detachment, it wrongly in turn often suggests boredom. What I mean to say is that at that time world events were no longer the perpetual catalyst of dread that they had been pre ’89. Whereas before 1989 (and after ’01), a headline about a highjacking or kidnapping in any land, however far-off, was enough to induce me to leave the breakfast table altogether, by ’92 newspapers really were for me what Proust assumed they were for everyone in his day—a place where you complacently read about the deaths of thousands in an earthquake in some far-off land while sipping your morning coffee. By then, I was pressing ahead in life, I fancy, with as much alacrity and aplomb as your average doughty youngster with reasonably bright prospects always had done. At the same time, I had made no metaphysical provision, as it were, for what was to happen after January 1, 2000.
dr: Don't you mean after “January 1, 2001”?
DR: Anyway, I don’t understand how anyone of my microgeneration can take any part of the present gallimaufry of political hysteria seriously; or fail to suffer from (or, should I say, “enjoy”) a sense of total disengagement therefrom. Surely, his recollection of that dopey Sting song “The Russians Love Their Children Too” alone ought to put paid to every trace of “What a Wonderful World It Would Be”-ism chez lui.

dr: Why? Because we now know that the Russians don’t love their children?

DR: No, because we no longer care whether the Russians love their children or not. And further, because most of the people who made a pretence of caring about it then, in the eighties, are still around now, and yet you don’t hear of any celebrities (any non-Russian ones, at least) dividing their calendars evenly between LA and Petersburg, as you might have expected them to end up doing, given their apparent love of the Russian people and the chance to express it, a chance that they of course have had for going on two decades now.

dr: Have you any other pet peeves?

DR: Yes: book indexes that don't distinguish page references to the text proper from those to the editor's notes. How crushingly disappointing it is, after encountering, say, a reference to W. C. Fields in the index to a Proust biography--I mean, such that you're duped into thinking by default that Proust had met WCF or admired one of his movies or both--to discover that some utterly inconsequential person a soiree attended by Proust later emigrated to Hollywood, where he wrote screenplays "for, among other luminaries, W. C. Fields"--and all for want of a single lowercase n!

DR: Hofmannsthal talks of this signal characteristic of Shakespeare’s young noblemen—a combination of extravagant arrogance and an almost punctilious fear of offending the other person. It’s this characteristic, this combination, that always comes to mind as a corrective whenever I’m tempted to efface Youth from my metaphysical account books.

dr: Really? As if only the young were capable of evincing this admittedly irresistible combination—

DR: --I don’t say that only they are capable of evincing it. But it’s much more winsome and redeeming in them, who by de facto rights (I mean, vis-à-vis their so-called inexperience) have no excuse to feel the one, and by stereotype (I mean, as congenital narcissists) have no occasion to feel the other.

Dr: All right-stroke-well then: as if in empirical fact young people of any caste actually ever still did evince this combination.

DR: I think certain rare birds among do, or did still do in my day as a young person. Have you ever seen that movie Metropolitan?

dr: No.

DR: Well, then, do do, at the earliest opportunity. He’s really cinched it—the director, Whit Stillman —has really cinched this combination, particularly in the character of Nick Smith, played by Chris Eigeman. Actually, Eigeman himself probably contributes a goodly share to the cinchage.
DR: Balzac called the Chartreuse the book that Machiavelli would have written had he been exiled to the nineteenth century. I am inclined to think of it more simply as the novel that Fielding would have written had he retired to Italy (yes, Italy of the mid eigtheenth century) rather than to Portugal.
DR: Even 30 years on, opera and lieder sung in English put me in mind of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.
DR: There's another thing I'll tell you right up front I just can't deal with.
dr: What's that?
DR: The contingency or facticity of naming.
dr: Eh?
DR: Well, consider this: I'm sure you learned in grade school, as I did, that we call a sandwich a sandwich because some English Earl of Sandwich, who was addicted to gambling, took to eating meat between two slices of bread so as not to have to absent himself from the gaming table even for so brief a duration as a supper.
dr: Yes, of course.
DR: So, that was all fine and dandy--I mean so long as this particular Earl of Sandwich was, as, far as one knew, the first and last Earl of Sandwich, I mean, insofar as he constituted some sort of autochthonous fairy-tale-esque agent whose sole purpose was to christen this everyday staple of Anglo-American (and, indeed, pan-European) cuisine. But then, eventually, upon learning, thanks to Pepys's diary, of an earlier--indeed, the first--Earl of Sandwich the grandfather or great-grandfather of the eponym of the English bocadillo, and of his numerous naval exploits both anterior and posterior to the Revolution--why then, one naturally sought out some biographical data on this later Sandwich, and learned what a nonentity he actually was by comparison with his illustrious Caroline ancestor--how he'd basically, in spite of his official ministerial responsibility, betrayed the martial legacy of the family by frittering away all his time at the card-table.
dr: And what of any of that?
DR: And what of all of that? Why, don't you see? To us a sandwich is a sandwich is a sandwich--but there is in fact an illustrious pre-sandwichian history of the Sandwiches; and, indeed, Edward Montague, the first Earl of Sandwich, in choosing Sandwich as the site of his earldom, was apparently fool enough to imagine that posterity would remember the Sandwiches principally if not exclusively, on account of his personal stalwart indispensability to both sides in the Civil War and the subsequent Restoration.
dr: I'm afraid I still fail to see what separates any of this from one's discovery--yes, in grammar school (if junior high school counts)--that both a Beef and a boot were named after a certain Wellington--
DR: --It differs inasmuch as that Duke of Wellington is the Duke of Wellington, inasmuch as there was no earlier scion of Wellington who bore a heavier portion of the historical yoke than did the winner of the day at Waterloo--
dr: --that is, as far as you know.
DR: Indeed, as far as I know. Yes, indeed, for all I know, a Wellington might have wielded the dagger or sword that delivered King Harold from this life on that unforgettable ** of ****, 1066. And that's just the problem, of course: apart from certain unbudgeables, Napoleon, for instance--
dr: --or Caesar, perchance?
DR: That name, of course, presents a whole nother can of anchoves, which I'd rather not open just now.
dr: Then don't.
DR: Much obliged. Anyway, as I was saying: Apart from certain unbudgeables, like Napoleon, you can never be sure that Mr. or Milord So-and-So whom you've associated with a certain dish or (in the case of Marlboro[ugh]) cigarette is the eponym of the thing in question.
DR. Which is indeed a disquieting revelation. It’s fitting that a great man like Napoleon or Wellington should go about the world haphazardly, unthinkingly shedding his eponymous grace—yes, like a jet of jizzm—on various entrees, desserts, cocktails, hairstyles, cravat-knots, and so on. Likewise, pseudo-paradoxically, that some utter nobody—

dr: --a Hobson or Allen—

DR: --indeed, that these sorts of nonentities should have things named after them. It’s a metaphysical sop to the common man; or, I don’t know, that’s too snooty and besides doesn’t quite clinch the sense of it. You could say, I guess, at the cost of trading snootiness for pretentiousness, that it was an alternative expression of the same bit of the Weltgeist that gave all of those Dickens characters like Barkus and Mr. Dick and Sam Weller and –simple people who were genuinely notable and distinguishable for saying or doing one thing over and over again. But that such time-servers, such epigones, as the third Earl of Sandwich should usurp such a privilege from their more illustrious homonyms; why, that really does defy one’s sense of the metaphysical justness of the world.

dr: You seem pretty worked up about this.

DR: Indeed I am. I am, indeed, positively indignant on behalf of the First Earl. And all the more so because in my worldview he really has begun to displace the lower-case sandwich as the de facto sandwich.

dr: You mean to say that when someone says the word—excuse me, the name—“sandwich” you really do see some pudgy, long-haired bloke in mid seventeenth-century dress and not, say, a BLT or cheeseburger?

DR: Even so. Think of it as the reverse of the metaphysical déclassement of the name famously described by Proust—of the Verdurinization of the Guermantes name, for instance.

dr: I can think of it as any number of things, but I can’t believe it actually takes place.

DR: Well, if you won’t take my word for it, talk to Phil Gyford or language hat or vincente/cumgranosalis or Rex Gordon or Jeannine Kerwin or or Terry Foreman or Robert Gertz. I've a hunch at least one of them will agree with me.


Jason R said...

So I guess this means you won't be getting an iPhone.

Jason R said...

So I am thinking, luncheon meat in a waffle cone. You could call that a Drober. What do you think?